IN A BETTER WORLD (Hævnen) B+
aka: The Revenge
Denmark Sweden (119 mi) 2010 ‘Scope d: Susanne Bier
This is a film not just with a moral objective, but a moral imperative, which may drive some people away in disgust with its broad, near epic sweep, finding it too obvious and overly preachy, as if you’re being lectured to. On the other hand, this is an extremely somber and reflective work that at its best is wonderfully quiet and observant, that reveals at an early age of childhood how ignorance and bullying are handed down from ill equipped parents, along with their prejudices and other narrow views. But not so fast, as the same problems occur in some of the most economically advantageous and educated households as well, especially when there are separation factors involved where children may be desperately seeking their own form of expression. While it is true that this film wraps things up a bit too neat and tidy, as there are certainly multiple possibilities of even greater horror than what is suggested, there is a wonderful poignancy underneath each of the carefully drawn characters in the film, where by the end they suddenly matter in our lives, even if we’ve found their behavior questionable throughout the film. Now there isn’t some kind of epiphany moment where somehow all is revealed, instead there is a slow, steady build up of character, where eventually they are intensely exposed, including much of what they’re carefully hiding from one another. People are rarely completely honest with one another, instead hiding bits and pieces that are fraught with an unbearable pain which is rarely if ever revealed. This under-the-surface emotional iceberg is the real pleasure of this film, as it resembles the world around us where people are carefully guarded, even within stable and long-term relationships, where there are simply things no one ever discusses, as if they are the painful secrets of our existence.
Most compelling is the relationship between two ten-year old boys, Christian, powerfully played by William Jøhnk Nielsen, and Elias (Markus Rygaard), where Christian solves the crisis of bullying with a swift act of revenge, protecting the meeker Elias who has seemingly succumbed to this endless behavior of being picked on and is forever indebted for his savior-like actions. They quickly become friends, but it’s clear Christian is the dominant party, emboldened by a sour sense of bitterness in the world around him, angry that his mother recently died of cancer, and angry at his father for being unable to stop it, feeling especially cheated after they were told her prognosis was excellent. Christian really carries the film and couldn’t be more intriguing, as he’s an especially smart kid holding his emotions in check, where there’s always an underlying sense of provocation, as if he could strike out anytime and anywhere. Despite his somewhat short stature, he stands up to the larger hoodlums in school without actually becoming one of them. Elias, on the other hand, follows him around like a lost puppy and wouldn’t dare cross his new friend. But there is also the simultaneous story of their parents, where Christian’s father Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) is loaded financially, taking him to live at his grandmother’s gargantuan estate, but remains impotent and emotionally repressed, unable to connect with his son who operates entirely on his own, cut off from the rest of his family. Elias’s father Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works periodically as the lone physician at an African refugee camp, where lone women, their husband’s already murdered, are being savagely brutalized, their wombs sliced open in a vicious game by the military junta to reveal the sex of the unborn child. When Anton returns home to their own immense estate by the sea, his marriage is split apart, living separately from his wife Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) who has her own home by the sea, unforgiving of her husband’s previous philandering.
The real story surrounds the emotional impotence of having to stand up to bigger and stronger forces that continually threaten violence, both at the children’s level and in the world of adults, where the brutality reduces humans to shadows of their former selves. Against all parental advice, Christian strikes first, thinking the best defense is a good offense, believing no one will touch him if the first blow is convincingly strong enough. But of course, this viewpoint is shredded to bits if the follow up course of action is full annihilation, which is what we witness in gang infested neighborhoods, as kids are routinely killing other kids for the simple offense of an insulting comment. But this film isn’t social realism, and the society being depicted is the Danish upper class, one that has a distinct prejudice against foreigners and anything Swedish. But the schoolyard bullying is no different than anywhere else in the world, while the viciousness of mutilations in Africa is like no place else on earth. The film follows the path of choices made, each leading to subsequent consequences, where other choices are made, all of which lead to a sense of finality, and eventual futility, where there is no foolproof option that is guaranteed to succeed, yet the film is quite clear about how it depicts a certain option that is doomed to fail. Again, the film is searching for a moral imperative. Many of the transitional shots by Morten Søborg between sequences are quite stunning, particularly in their silence, though some may think these are pretentious artistic devices designed to reflect the typical vernacular of an art film. Actually, this view reflects the harmony of nature unspoiled by the damage of human intervention, where man’s initial impulse seems to be to destroy whatever it touches. Human violence is like no other destruction on earth, which ultimately leads to tragically bleak consequences, so by the finale, the film ends with the quiet urgency of a fervent prayer.